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Palestinians take control in Bethlehem
( 2003-07-03 09:21) (Agencies)

A Palestinian flag fluttered in Manger Square as Palestinian police marched into Bethlehem Wednesday, taking control of the ancient West Bank city after Israel withdrew under a US-backed peace plan.

An elderly Palestinian man watches Palestinian policemen march prior to their deployment in Bethlehem July 2, 2003 after the Palestinians took security control over the city from the Israeli army. [Reuters]

The second handover of territory in three days, and the passage of another day without serious security threats, raised hopes that 33 months of deadly violence may be winding down.

Israel's departure from Bethlehem followed its withdrawal from much of Gaza and an upbeat summit meeting Tuesday between Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in which they moved forward with the "road map" peace plan, a three-phase blueprint for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

Among the plan's first steps are a halt to violence and a gradual Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities and towns.

However, in Gaza, Palestinians fired four anti-tank shells at an Israeli settlement, slightly wounding two Israelis, the military said, the first incident of its kind since the handover on Monday.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian police returned to their barracks, many pockmarked with bullets. Other police stations and outposts were gone - destroyed in repeated Israeli airstrikes over the past 33 months.

Some officers made do with a shack they half-seriously called the "muqata," Arabic for headquarters, a term that once described a new, stylish office building Yasser Arafat used in Bethlehem before he was confined to Ramallah more than a year ago by Israeli troops.

Israeli planes dropped bombs on the Bethlehem headquarters, collapsing it in an explosion loud enough to be heard in Jerusalem several miles away.

"We have no choice but to be hopeful so that we can continue," one officer said, tying his boot laces and refusing to give his name. "There is something this time - international pressure, and more specifically American pressure."

While residents were happy to see their police return and the Israelis go, they complained the changeover did not alter the main hardship they face - Israeli roadblocks keeping them out of the rest of the West Bank and away from their jobs in Israel.

"It's great to see the police," said Bethlehem resident Qassam Abu Kamleh. "They're our brothers, our fathers and uncles. But if they really want peace, then open up the checkpoints and let us move."

Israel closed off the West Bank and Gaza and put up dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints around Palestinian cities and towns shortly after violence erupted in September 2000. Israel said the measures were necessary to stop Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers, but the restrictions have ruined the Palestinian economy.

The formal entrance of the Palestinian police, sirens wailing and boots clicking in march rhythm on the dry, dusty streets was viewed as just a show by many residents.

Israel first turned control of Bethlehem over to the Palestinians a few days before Christmas 1994. But they have been in and out four times since the fighting began, and, except for a few lulls, have controlled the city for over a year.

In May 2002, they held the Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, under siege for a month, demanding surrender of Palestinian gunmen who had taken refuge inside. In the end, some were sent to Gaza and others exiled to Europe.

A similar turnover ceremony took place after that, but Palestinian control didn't last long.

On Nov. 21, a Palestinian suicide bomber from Bethlehem blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing 11 passengers, and Israeli troops marched back in a few hours later, remaining in control until Wednesday.

A Palestinian policeman about to go out on patrol didn't expect his role to last this time, either.

"I give it three months. The (Israeli) tank is going to be standing right here," he said, pointing out the window. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite the tentative moves toward ending the bloodshed, there were worrying signs. For hours, Israeli police tied up traffic through central Israel, following an intelligence report that a Palestinian suicide bomber was on his way to an attack in an Israeli city. There were miles-long traffic jams in the Tel Aviv area during evening rush hour as police checked vehicles.

Following Tuesday's meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, which began with positive public statements, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his Cabinet Wednesday to consider the next steps.

President Bush called Sharon on Wednesday and praised the outcome of the summit, a statement from Sharon's office said, adding that Sharon accepted Bush's invitation to visit the White House in September.

Late Wednesday, Army Radio reported that Israel had released nine Palestinian prisoners, but noted that their sentences were up. Twelve more were to be released Thursday, the report said. Releasing prisoners is a key Palestinian demand.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet that Israel wants to see Palestinians start disarming militant groups in Gaza and Bethlehem before pulling out of additional areas - a process he thought could take several weeks, according to officials present at the meeting.

Abbas opposes the use of force against militias, fearing it could trigger a civil war. He suggested Tuesday that illegal weapons would not be confiscated, but Palestinian police would try to persuade militiamen not to use them.

The three main militant groups - Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Arafat's Fatah faction - have declared a temporary halt in attacks on Israelis.

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